Can the net help companies plant roots in Brussels?

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A post last week on the website Wired got me thinking about the use of grassroots in Brussels. The author highlights that GM has sought to use its own employees to lobby federal US policymakers for the money it needs to stay afloat as a company.

It reminded me of a recent dinner conversation about whether grassroots – digital or otherwise – can work in Brussels when conducted by corporations. The conversation was sparked by the Vattenfall campaign that has been running in PLux (see our recent post).

Principally our dinner conversation focused on two points:

  1. Whether contact from concerned individuals would have an effect in Brussels
  2. Whether it is acceptable for a corporation (as opposed an NGO) to undertake such a tactic

I’ve already argued, and continue to believe, that such contact can make a difference. In fact, I’ve even taken it to the extreme and argued that given our Brussels sensitivities about being in touch with citizens and the fact that direct contact with citizens is a relative novelty that it may be more powerful when done well.

Of course, when grassroots tactics have been used here they have tended to have been used by NGOs. Even a chemical-head like me has to take his hat off to the campaigns run by NGOs during REACH. Who could forget postcards featuring Barroso and Verheugen feeding chemicals to a baby through a test tube. Or delegations from the jam-making WI turning up in the European Parliament. Industry fights on fact, loses on emotion (again). Life ain’t fair, is it folks?

Thus, while I don’t buy the statement that just because it works in the US it can work here, I equally don’t buy that it can’t work here. It’s just going to be different. See some examples we’ve already featured in this blog (here, here and here).

Back to our GM case. The company, as you will recall, is seeking to leverage its own workers in support of its advocacy. What would corporations have to think about to this in a European (read EU) rather than US context? Three considerations in my humble view:

  1. Transparency. As the leaked GM email shows, your email seeking to motivate people (workers or otherwise) could be made (very) public. As such, you need to be transparent about who you are and what you are doing. My dinner guests believe this makes the grassroots advocacy less credible towards policymakers, I think it makes it more so. If you can get ordinary folk to care about an issue that affects your organisation, then surely that in itself is worth more than an overpriced ad in the EV?
  2. Engagement. People don’t care about the EU, I hear you scream. Well, hell no. But it so happens that most of the legislative grind that organisations care about is about issues that are personally relevant on a local level – waste, air quality, the 2 for 1 issues you see in the shops etc. People do care about that. Knock on any door in the land and see what people want to talk about; pop quiz, is it (a) the failed Lisbon Treaty (b) the LIBOR (c) things that matter to them at a local level?  The internet should make it easier to find people interested in your issue, as we tend to congregate around stuff we are interested in online. Now of course GM have picked a group that has a direct interest in the issue on the company’s plate and thus should be interested in doing something about it. It is after all their jobs at stake. I would however foresee some teething issues in a similar approach here in Europe just because of differences in our workplace. Discussing politics in the workplace is akin to discussing religion, pledging allegiance to the corporate stone tablet or admitting you enjoy knitting. It’s just not done. Having said this, in all communications your employees should be the keenest ambassadors of your messages. As such, whether it’s your employees or a population you are seeking to engage on the internet, success is probably going to be defined by whether or not you are able to make a emtional link to what these audiences care about.
  3. Familiarity. Clearly in the US, citizens at least have a basic understanding of the federal government, how the legislative process works and who represents them. As such, the importance and potential impact of writing to Congressional leaders or their federal representatives is likely to be obvious. The same cannot be said for European understanding of MEPs, Commissioners or indeed Council perm reps. Once you have gathered your group of advocates together, you are going to have to explain why the EU is important. Equally, there is a question for Brussels PA people about their own familiarity with the tactics we are talking about. Look at us. We for the most part come from an either technical or policy background – very few of us have tasted national or European political campaigning. Indeed in some countries such campaigns may in any case bear little or no relation to the kind of activities which our US cousins revel in. Is it therefore any surprise that we prefer on the whole to stick to traditional GR tactics like meeting folk?

All this is to say that there are challenges out there and the way we approach engaging third parties of any kind on Brussels based advocacy issues is going to be, well, different. But in my view, not impossible – as the Vattenfall campaign has shown. Perhaps in the Obama-bounce, we may find ourselves considering tactics that up until now have been considered not suitable for Europe?

Since the post on Wired, I note from Bloomberg that GM is now petitioning the German government for such funding on behalf of Opel. It will be interesting to see if will contact its 25,000 German workers to ask them to write letters to the relevant German politicians.


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Nick Andrews
November 19, 2008 | 5:39 PM

Most views "in their most radical form" become questionable. Hence, "extremism" is generally condemned regardless of political hue. The fact is that there seems to be a school of thought which suggests that companies do not have the right (or obligation) to fight for their right to exist, and to mobilise their workforce (peaceably, legally and without resort to coercion) to do so. I think this is odd, especially given that, like it or not, it is commerce which has done as much as anything to drive human and societal development.

November 19, 2008 | 4:08 PM

<i>"I fail to see why it is OK for a union to galvanise a workforce to march on Brussels (or anywhere else for that matter), but it is somehow underhand for a company (which is, after all, a legitimate stakeholder) to do the same. Surely organised labour is organised labour, regardless of who is doing the organising?"</i> --&gt; This is a very old point of view, known as 'corporatism'. In it's more radical form of 'solidarism' it was first politically expressed by a certain Benito Mussulini. Good thinking LOL

November 19, 2008 | 11:23 AM

Sorry, the blog over is the institutional blog. This is my wordpress blog:

November 19, 2008 | 10:55 AM

Hello: it is very new for us as well, unless in Spain, that a corporation could develop " social responsabiliy". Perhaps it is the clue for understanding a new age in the relationship between citezenry, corporations and politicians.

November 18, 2008 | 8:17 PM

Interesting post James. I quite like GM's approach – they’re appreciating the value of personal stories as well as traditional advocacy (or yes, maybe they’re just desperate). Although I think it was a mistake to simply ask employees to contact their policymakers without really fitting this tactic into a broader grassroots campaign which already had at least some momentum behind it: 1) This would have justified the email somewhat and made the ‘they’re pathetic and desperate’ angle harder to apply when it was leaked (and GM should have known that these things are always leaked); and 2) It would make mobilisation amongst GM employees more likely because they’d have seen their efforts as part of a bigger effort rather than a last-gasp ploy. With regards to making it work in Europe, I would encourage companies to give it a go if they know their issue is likely to get people excited. However, I’d always: 1) again, carefully frame it within a broader campaign; 2) make sure that efforts did not become fragmented by having one place online where all efforts and campaign material is synchronized; and 3) not do it alone - the web is an amazing integrator, so harness this and hyperlink an employee initiative to relevant campaigns or communities elsewhere, or get support from other unconventional campaigners (in Opel’s case, employees in other sectors who know they might be next, citizens who live near a factory that’s facing closure etc.)

November 18, 2008 | 7:44 PM

Interesting point. I suppose its the same reason why corporations are seen as lobbyists and NGOs are not. James

Nick Andrews
November 18, 2008 | 12:30 PM

I fail to see why it is OK for a union to galvanise a workforce to march on Brussels (or anywhere else for that matter), but it is somehow underhand for a company (which is, after all, a legitimate stakeholder) to do the same. Surely organised labour is organised labour, regardless of who is doing the organising?